Stitched up by a surgeon
  |  First Published: November 2004

In 25 years of fishing Sydney Harbour I had only ever heard about surgeon fish but never actually caught one or even seen one in the flesh.

My mate Theo got one on a prawn at the eastern Wedding Cake a couple of years ago and sent me a pic. A customer, Ted Howard, mentioned that he caught a few around The Spit bridge and I’m sure he said he had caught them jigging small grub-tail plastics.

In the week leading up to writing this, my charter customers have now accounted for over 20 and that’s not to mention the other 20 that hammered us around the pylons. Co-incidentally, my mate Jack Hannan had been hassling me all Winter to go and have a shot at the big surgeonfish he had seen at various locations around the Harbour while diving.

Given that they have all been caught using standard luderick methods and baits, with a few luderick mixed in with the catches, it appears that it is very much a location thing. I’ve pulled hundreds of luderick from Sow and Pigs, the Wedding Cakes and other locations without ever getting a stray surgeon.

They are a mighty powerful fish with a one-kilo specimen a real challenge on standard blackfish gear. The best we have caught was just under 2kg and I can say without reservation that they are every bit as pernicious as a similar sized king or GT and with the same penchant for pylons.

According to the Australian Museum website: “Sawtail surgeonfish (Prionurus microlepidotus) can be recognised by its grey to brownish coloration and the row of five to six black scutes on the rear of the body. It grows to 70cm. Adults are found mostly on coastal rocky reefs. Juveniles are usually seen in estuaries and coastal bays. This species occurs in tropical and warm temperate waters of the Western Pacific. In Australia it is known from northern Queensland to southern NSW, plus Lord Howe Island.”

The tail scutes are scalpel-sharp which is, I imagine, where their name came from, and the flesh is pearly white and delicious. The dorsal and anal fin spines are hideously sharp and inflict a painful wound.

They have a mouth almost identical to a luderick (even in tooth structure) and their skin is closer to shark skin than anything else. Ted commented that their most distinguishable feature was an almost unbearable stench from the live fish, even fresh from the water.

Naturally, the first thing I did when we landed our first one was to put my nose straight to the fish and take a good whiff much to my customers’ concern (“He’s a damn fish-sniffer!”)

I found they had a slight sharky ammonia smell but nothing too repulsive and I’m thinking Ted’s experience could have been a seasonal or even a breeding thing. His surgeons were caught in Summer and mine in Winter, if that has anything to do with it, but I have heard the comment before about the smell from a third party. Either way, they were great to eat.

As for catching them, all I can say is that we did exactly what we normally do for luderick. You might consider upping the tackle a bit if you intend to fish specifically for surgeon and, as mentioned, they are location-specific.

They are nowhere as abundant or widespread as luderick but they obviously do mix. Deep-water bridge and jetty pylons are prime locations and Jack has seen them along deep reef edges in selected locations in the lower Harbour.

When prospecting for them I strongly recommend fishing a cabbage bait close to the bottom (as well as your standard float rig) off a paternoster rig. Jack mentioned that they mostly sit deeper then luderick.

They are caught in water as shallow as three metres but are much more commonly in the six to 15-metre range.

Given that we rarely present weed baits in these sort of depths, it’s not surprising that surgeon fish are an uncommon capture for recreational fishos. Who knows what else we might discover fishing deep weed baits? Red morwong and old maids (scats), both vegetarians, are two very real possibilities.

Although they are described as a tropical and warm-water fish, all the ones I have caught have been in Winter water around 17°. Ted caught his in Summer temps of 22°.

There is no size limit for surgeon but there is a bag limit of five, mainly to protect them from spearfishos.

On other Harbour fronts, salmon are still going nuts between the Heads and trevally are sitting underneath them and off most of the deep-water headlands, like Quarantine.

Flatties and flounder are starting to take plastics in the bays. We picked up a 3kg flathead on a Storm Shad right in front of the island at Balmoral.

Luderick are swarming everywhere.

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